Student experiencing math problems.

6 Ways to Implement a Math Workshop in your Classroom

Teaching math in a “skill and drill” manner doesn’t necessarily prepare students to solve real-world problems.

In lieu of traditional math instruction, many educators are opting for group-focused workshops to increase student engagement. Implementing a math workshop can help students make sense of problems and persevere in solving them. Workshops can also foster a greater enjoyment of math and boost students’ self-esteem. With common core testing standards that require students to explain their reasoning, an in-depth understanding of mathematics is especially important.

Elementary school teacher Alice Murphy developed a highly acclaimed math workshop model to help her students become better problem-solvers. Here is a summary of her approach:

  1. Organize supplies – Alice recommends using the plastic bins with handles and dividers to organize necessary supplies, which could include worksheets, writing implements, erasers, rulers, calculators, scissors, and grid paper. Have one bin for each group rotation.
  2. Acclimate students with rules and procedures – Starting on the first full day of class, Alice presents students with three different math games. She reviews the instructions and discusses acceptable noise levels. Then, she randomly divides the class into three groups and announces that each group is to rotate every 10 minutes. This practice session familiarizes students with how math workshop operates and also enables the teacher to assess students’ ability levels.
  3. Divide class into groups – Some teachers prefer assembling groups based on similar ability level, while others have found success in grouping students of mixed ability. Try out both and see what works best for you. An average class size usually warrants 3-4 groups.
  4. Start with a mini lesson – Alice recommends starting the mini lesson with an open-ended question. Write the problem on the board and ask students to share their initial thoughts. This allows the teacher to gauge the students’ current knowledge, their misconceptions, and key pieces of information they’re missing.
  5. Begin rotations – Rotation activities are lesson-based and can consist of math games, worksheets, and computer programs. Alice uses activities from previous units, workshops she’s attended, or games purchased from Really Good Stuff, Target, or Meijer. Each rotation lasts 12-15 minutes depending on group size. Use a timer to keep everyone on track and announce one-minute warnings. At the end of each rotation, student groups will move clockwise to the next station.
  6. Reflect – To conclude math workshop, Alice has her students sit in a circle on the floor and reflect upon their discoveries and any remaining questions from math workshop. She starts with a question like, “What do you know now that you didn’t know before?” Alice says this portion is always rich, surprising, and fulfilling.

The ability to apply mathematics to real-world problems is an invaluable skill, but many students are missing out because they’re learning it through a process of memorization and repetition. The workshop method can help students gain a deeper understanding and enjoyment of math. Employing abstract reasoning during problem-solving will not only help students with their test scores, it will better prepare them to deal with the nuances and unique challenges of real-life problems.


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